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Deveron Projects

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David Blyth

Scranky Black Farmer


Scranky-scrawny, cranky, scraggy, mean, lean-shanked.
Exploration into the bothy ballad 'The Scranky Black Farmer'

In 2006, David Blyth joined Deveron Projects as town Artist. During this time he produced a vinyl record,  a product of his research into the bothy ballad The Scranky Black Farmer

As music progresses from locally-inflected traditions to popular forms of composition and distribution, a relationship between the two can be found in the guise of a 'cover' song. This is how David first came across the obscure bothy ballad, Scranky Black Farmer, courtesy of 1970s folk outfit, Clive's Own Band. This represents an unusual link between the past and present – how has a tradition of song particular to the North-east proliferated so widely? And why this obscure song, rather than say, the more well-known Bogie's Bonnie Belle? The history of the song called to David immediately, in particular the identity of the Scranky Black Farmer. 


From the references to familiar near by places such as Leith Hall, The Garioch and Kennethmont in the song, David was drawn into a research process that found him looking into the past of the local area, immediate to Huntly. The song itself documents the inland trials of a sea-faring lad in search of seasonal employment as a plough-boy. He experiences first-hand the hardship of farm-life under the watchful eye of his employer, after being fee'd by the man in the title from a local 'fairm-toun' market.

Referring to the Greig-Duncan Collection, a historic document of songs from the North-east, and also tracking down relatives of a likely candidate of the Farmer, David began to put the various pieces together - finding photographs, various documents, and of course more versions of the song in question. The final product of David's engagement with this subject is was a vinyl compilation of 7 versions of the bothy ballad, as well as a newly commissioned performance of it by Shona Donaldson. Shona's performance was recorded live at Kennethmont, where the song was written. This chilling rendition of the songs was witnessed by many people who had some family connection or close affinity with the event. The vinyl record provides a glimpse into the realities of farm-life during the late 19th century, in particular the lives of the individuals in the song, and also the life of a song. Something in this young man's composition documenting his laborious trials speaks to a wide range of people, despite its vernacular origins. This represents both a universal message, open to interpretation, and also the open relationship between the local and the global, the provincial and the popular.


David Blyth Scratching the Surface

 The evolution of technology has produced significant advances and changes to both our daily living, and daily working environments. When it comes to evolution however, the phrase, 'survival of the fittest' often comes into the conversation, whether it is correctly linked to the idea or not. Huntly and the North-east of Scotland is proud of a distinct agricultural heritage, as well as a continuing musical tradition - both are linked through David's research into the Scranky Black Farmer bothy ballad, and it's sister project, Scratching the Surface. David aimed to create an archive of this heritage, both celebrating the legacy of this culture, though also paying tribute to diminishing ways of life, that make way for the new.

The documenting of the various versions of the Scranky Black Farmer on a vinyl record immediately created a link between the medium's fading from cultural memory and the distinct phasing out of the primary working instrument of the song's subject. (Not to mention the physical resemblance of the plough's blade in the ground and the record player's needle). As a result, David implemented an 'audio plough' with which he recorded a 7" record comprised of the authentic noises of a plough used by a human, in full stereo sound. As a result, the recording creates a meditative atmosphere for the listener, allowing them to calmly consider the past in the comfort of their home. This stands juxtaposed to the nature of the work that produces the recording - the human sweats and tires as they pull the plough behind them, against the surface of the soil, in time with the dragging of the needle across the grooves of the record. The record both stands as a symbol of nostalgia, but also as a representative of laborious activity. Considering the nature of the recording, it is reminiscent of many experimental musicians working with found sounds, and noise. These musicians still prefer the medium of vinyl distribution to this day, as a way of side-stepping the homogenized mp3 culture, bleached of all identity.


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